Magic Moments

by Steve Heiting
This 25-pounder by Steve Heiting was the largest musky caught during the evening described at the beginning of this article.

I hate to admit it, but I almost “outsmarted” myself from a tremendous evening of musky fishing last season. Fortunately, it was the confidence gained from too many previous positive outings that led me to experience some of the fastest action I saw all year.

My plans were to join good friends Chuck Nelson and Jordan Weeks for an evening of musky casting, but a cold front that had blown through the previous evening had me thinking of cancelling the trip. After all, the conditions were classic post-frontal — it was the second evening following the front’s passage, the air temperature was in the low 60s and forecast to drop to the 40s overnight, there was a slight north wind, and the skies were cloudless.

Twice that day I thought of calling Chuck and Jordan and opting out. But we planned to fish from about 6 p.m. until dark, and from past experience I knew the best time to be on the water after a front’s passage was the hour of last light. I figured we’d get only one strike, and if we caught it, what would be wrong with catching a musky? I didn’t make the phone calls, and by 10 that evening I was glad I hadn’t.

It was mid June, and the lake we planned to fish produces a terrific evening open water casting bite. After launching my Ranger, we eased over the deep water and set up with Chuck and me casting to one side of the boat, Jordan to the other, to increase the amount of water covered.

Within a half hour, Jordan had a hot follow, and that should have tipped me off that this wasn’t going to be a typical post-frontal evening. Usually, the only fish you see are either eating your bait or following lazily. Then Chuck had a strike on a Triple D crankbait, and as I reached for the net the 20-pounder jumped and threw the bait.

“Nice going, Chuck. You just blew our only chance of the evening,” I chided my friend. Boy, was I going to be wrong, and in short time.

Five casts later Chuck snapped his rod upward with one of his rock-solid hooksets and soon our first musky of the evening was in the big Frabill. “I guess the musky gods are going to be generous tonight,” I smiled as I snapped a quick photo of Chuck releasing his fish.

The exact timing of the 90 minutes of action is hard to place in chronological order because it seemed to happen so quickly. Shortly after Chuck’s musky waved its tail goodbye, I set the hook and eventually brought to net a chunky fish just shy of 40 inches long, another Triple D victim. Then Chuck lost an unseen fish after a couple of headshakes, and I lost a 40-inch-plus fish that struck in a figure-8 but wrapped the line on my trolling motor head and came unhooked when I tried to pull it free.

Finally, as the last of the sun’s light outlined the treetops to the west, I set the hook on the biggest musky of the evening, a 25-pounder that still had the Triple D perfectly T-boned in its jaws as I eased it into the net.

We spent another hour shivering as the air temperature plummeted, only pulling the boat when it became obvious the action was over. But what an evening it was — in an hour and a half, Chuck and I hooked six muskies of which at least three were longer than 40 inches and a fourth was a hair short of that mark, and boated three. (Exactly what Jordan was doing during this time is uncertain, but he did take great photos.)

The next day I pored through my yearly musky catch records looking for a post-frontal evening that could match the previous day’s results, and found none. It was clearly the best I’d had. What stood out, however, was just how many muskies — and big ones at that — that have visited my boat in the last hour of daylight.

Every musky hunter I know is looking for a magic bait or a magic lake that can hasten the time between musky catches. But so much of musky fishing is being in the right place at the right time, and the right time without question is often the last hour of daylight.

Want more proof? Recently I compiled statistics for musky catches over the past four seasons of the University of Esox Canadian Musky Adventure school, held each July at Monument Bay Lodge on Lake of the Woods’ Northwest Angle, and found that nearly a third of the fish measuring 45 inches or longer were taken between 8 and 10 p.m. A full 20 percent were caught between 9 and 10 p.m. Talk about a big fish window! Besides the big muskies, dozens of smaller fish were caught in that final hour of daylight.

Just What Is Going On Here?

While the opening anecdote of this article occurred during a post-frontal evening, I firmly believe the last hour of daylight is the best time for musky fishing regardless of conditions.

There are a lot of things that factor into making twilight an awesome musky moment. Low light conditions are always prime simply because a sight-feeder like a musky has less opportunity to recognize your lure as having a string attached — the fish is much more likely to make a mistake. But there’s so much more to it than that.

The sun’s act of setting is already one of four daily astronomical phenomena that create a light and gravitational change that influence muskies to feed (the others are sunrise, moonrise and moonset). Anytime one of these is occurring, or if two — such as sunset and moonrise — are occurring almost simultaneously, it’s important to be fishing a prime musky spot.

And, on many of our more popular lakes, the simple reduction of boat traffic — both pleasure boaters and fishermen — as the day ends can have a positive influence on musky behavior. Muskies that may have moved off breaklines into deeper water because of incessant powerboat traffic overhead, or fish that may have grown weary of lure after lure being cast nearby, move back into favorable feeding locations or moods as the traffic eases.

I think the last hour of daylight is best in post-frontal conditions for two reasons: the “hangover” or negative mood the front caused is getting old and the muskies are becoming hungry; and a day’s worth of post-frontal sun has heated the water to the warmest it’s been all day and the coming night is only going to cool it down. I think in the musky’s mind, if there’s a time to feed, it’s now.

Some guys really like extreme early morning fishing for a lot of the same reasons I’ve outlined for last light fishing, and they’re right. However, in post-frontal conditions I give the nod to the last light period — a day of sunshine before evening has to have a more positive influence on fishing action than a long, cold night before morning.

Good Conditions vs. Bad

Last light in prime conditions is when your concentration should be at its utmost, a time when you really need to be on top of your game, because this is when good things can happen in the form of multiple catches or really big fish.

Last light is a key time to return to a big fish you may have spotted earlier in the day or week, or simply to be fishing areas that you’ve previously identified as the best available. Usually, when it’s warm, structure-bound muskies will remain relatively shallow and will often move even shallower than you previously saw them or would expect. Check structure or cover within the bounds of the shoreline out to the first breakline. Muskies in these situations can be caught with fast-riding lures such as bucktails and topwaters, or if they’re on a breakline, with an aggressively-fished crankbait.

I also really like open water situations at sunset in warm conditions because plankton and aquatic insects rise in the water column, bringing suspended baitfish with them. Of course, muskies follow. Muskies that may be suspended so deep during the day that they can only be reached by utilizing a countdown presentation when casting, or a wire line presentation when trolling, now move up to that magic, accessible zone of the upper 15 feet of the water column because the baitfish they seek are now there.

This situation can be so good that even when I’m concentrating on shallow water fish, if I see baitfish breaking the surface over deep water or I see high riding baitfish concentrations on my electronics as I motor over deep water, I’ll change my plans and check out the open water bite.

Even though the muskies are near the surface, I prefer crankbaits but fish them in the upper eight feet. Lots of twitches, rips and pauses keep the lure shallow while making it stand out in the presence of enormous numbers of baitfish. Some anglers even fish topwaters in these situations in the belief that a surface lure will be more obvious to the muskies below. Last year, my videographer, Rick Mai, caught a 20-pound fish over 35 feet of water on a Triple D that was basically a topwater at the time. The evening had grown too dark for good filming, so Rick put down the camera and picked up a rod. After making a cast, he paused to swat a mosquito before starting the retrieve and the musky nearly took the rod from his hands.

Now what about catching muskies in post-frontal conditions? Even though I’ve said that last light is the best time, don’t expect muskies to be easy. In fact, you’re probably going to get only one strike.

For some reason, a topwater is always a good choice, and is the only fast-moving presentation I’ve had much success with on the evening following a front. A straight, steady retrieve with a tail-spinning topwater like a TallyWacker, Stomper or TopRaider seems to work best for me.

Muskies will typically hold deeper in cover or structure following a front so are prime for a crankbait or large minnowbait. Still, the muskies may need to be triggered to strike, so consciously try to crash the lure into rocks or bump it into weeds. I’ve caught numerous large fish by walking a crankbait along rocky structure, and when it reaches a depth at which it no longer bumps bottom, I give the lure a twitch and pause it before resuming the retrieve. If a musky doesn’t pick the bait up as it bounces over the structure, they’ll often crush it during the pause after the twitch.

If you’ve determined the muskies are holding deeper, say off the breakline or over deep water, a straight-retrieved crankbait is often best. My regular fishing buddies say I twitch and rip crankbaits more than anybody they know, but in post-front conditions I force myself to simply cast and crank, with maybe an occasional pause in the retrieve. Twitches and rips may be too much in these situations.

Timing can be everything in practically any pursuit, and it can be critical to success in musky fishing. While I hate to see any musky fishing day end, I always look forward to the magic moment of last light because I know my chances of catching a big musky may be the best of the day. Concentrate on this time period in the coming season and be sure to take plenty of film for your camera — you’re going to need it!

Leave a reply